The events of this harrowing night are chronicled in the fact-based “Beauty and the Dogs,” the first traditional narrative feature by Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania (after several shorts and documentaries, and her 2013 mockumentary “Challat of Tunis”).
Actress Mariam Al Ferjani, in her first full-length film, convincingly plays a stubborn young woman who remains strong and assertive, despite being a victim — both of a society with restrictive views of women’s sexuality and of a repressive state-security apparatus. Rather than remain silent out of fear, Mariam — encouraged by Youssef (Ghanem Zrelli) — agrees to press charges.
“Why did we have a revolution?” Youssef says, egging her on. “People have died for their rights.” Mariam initially perceives his tone as lecturing but eventually relents.
In a nation still grappling with its authoritarian past, the state’s first priority seems to be to protect itself, not its citizens. Mariam’s predicament is Kafkaesque: A forensic doctor says she has to report the rape to the police before she can be examined, even though it’s the police who have violated her. She is also subjected to intimidation, threats and numerous other indignities from contemptuous security officials as she tries to press her case.
As Mariam and Youssef shuttle between police stations and medical facilities bathed in blindingly white florescent light, their ordeal becomes nightmarish. It doesn’t help that Youssef has had his own run-ins with the law, because of his political leanings.
Laid out in an episodic structure, using long takes, the dialogue-heavy, blow-by-blow narrative leaves little room for backstory, or for insight into what drives Mariam to stand up to authority, in a situation where many others would quail. The film would be stronger had it revealed more of its central character’s thoughts and emotions.
By the end, the outcome is still unclear, leaving viewers hanging. Such ambiguity might work for pure fiction, but given that there’s a real-life incident behind the story, the lack of closure is unsatisfying.
Despite these limitations, “Beauty and the Dogs” confronts issues rarely addressed so frankly — at least in this part of the world — with a story that is both powerful and important. About its vulnerable yet courageous heroine, one might easily say: Nevertheless, she persisted.
Unrated. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains strong language and discussions of an off-screen rape. In Arabic with subtitles. 100 minutes.